James Foley

James Foley

Take Back Control: Independence Must be about Sovereignty

Reading Time: 14 minutes

The Scottish election will place a new bid for independence before the electorate. But the case for independence suffers from an ambivalence to the question of democratic sovereignty. James Foley argues that the empowerment of the working class majority must be at the heart of the socialist intervention in the movement.

In 2014, the Yes referendum strategy was built on a binary theory of political communications: positive messages always win; negative approaches always lose. Some campaign officials, having worked on Obama’s 2008 election, almost seemed to believe this rule held literally true. Indeed, to their own mind, the referendum proved the theory in practice. If it wasn’t always clear what the Yes campaign was “positive” about, few deny that Better Together’s “project fear” epitomised the negative side of politics. Westminster leaders from Gordon Brown to David Cameron would subsequently blame this relentless negativity for the moral collapse of unionism, while the SNP would credit their own surge to optimism – “talking up Scotland”.

Still, I always had my doubts about these dichotomies. There was a tendency to conflate moral beliefs about right and wrong with explanations for real political behaviour. And there was a further slippage between distrust of “negative campaigning” (personal slanders) and the more legitimate practice of critiquing the status quo. Finally, as a theory of electoral history, it stands little scrutiny, even in its paradigm cases: Obama certainly had an aura of windy optimism, but his success was also built on explicit, sometimes personalised denunciations of earlier regimes, including the pro-war Democrat establishment.

What was true of America was true elsewhere, as the world entered an era of austerity and rage at failing elites. Europe was experiencing its “populist moment”. And populism by its nature defines its people negatively, against the corrupted establishment. In these circumstances, abstract “positivity” seemed nebulous and airy. Arguably, so it proved. If you look at the reality of Yes campaign messaging across the 2012-14 period, it becomes more negative, more pointed and more effective as the referendum progressed. It caught the wind of an anti-Westminster mood. This explains its extraordinary success, as grassroots agency turned a marginal no-hoper cause into an incipient majority that terrified the British establishment.

Nonetheless, Yes campaigners have clung on to their “positive campaign” as a marker of moral superiority. And it’s not all a myth. Yes may have been ambivalent, but No’s “project fear” has become a global archetype of negative politics.

Yet this only reinforces how the SNP’s case for independence has changed, because today, almost nothing remains of this optimistic spirit. Insofar as Nicola Sturgeon and her cohort have made a case for independence since 2016, it rests entirely on not being Westminster. Negatively speaking, Scotland has become increasingly certain of what we’re against; positively speaking, nobody has explained what independence means or why it matters.

The SNP’s one such effort, the Sustainable Growth Commission, only added to the problems. Theoretically, it was designed to break with the populist mood music of the Salmond era in favour of sobering realism, with the aim of winning over the layers of upper middle-class voters who were most sceptical of independence in 2014.

However, after Brexit and covid, there is nothing remotely “realistic” about this prospectus. Its headline economic commitments are mutually inconsistent. Its recipe of harsh austerity is out of fashion everywhere, even in the most avowedly neoliberal institutions. Its “sustainability” bears little examination in an era of “climate emergency”. If anything, the Growth Commission demonstrates that technocratic elites are just as susceptible to magical thinking as working class populists.

It survives largely as a testament to the SNP leadership’s characteristic stubbornness. Sturgeon has been too embarrassed to drop, to modify or to defend the Growth Commission. And while the party membership never liked the document, and voted against it whenever possible, until recently support for independence kept rising, so few complained and would-be critics looked the other way. But in retrospect this appearance of support was born of fear rather than positive conviction. Underlying this was a paroxysm of apocalyptic scenarios around Brexit: ironically, another “project fear”, turned up to eleven.

The problem with simply indulging middle class hysteria is that it must subside. All things remaining equal, softer support will fall away as Brexit mania gives way to realism and accommodation. Thus, even if the SNP secures its majority, Yes support will need to be rebuilt on new bases. Sturgeon or her successor will have to return to explaining the positive case for independence and, in the process, address knotty contradictions in their own thinking.


For all these problems, there are reasons why the left should engage constructively with the Yes movement. Scottish independence is what remains of the democratising energies unleashed by the crisis of 2008 and the subsequent crisis of the British state. Unlike Corbynism and Brexit – which, in different ways, are its English counterparts – Yes still mobilises vast extra-parliamentary forces. Despite condescension (and even downright hostility) from the professional caste that runs Scotland and the SNP, independence marches have attracted numbers arguably into the hundreds of thousands and would do so today but for the pandemic.

I differ from some on the Marxist left, in that I don’t expect crises to produce miraculous leaps, even allowing for a degree of “lag”. Political methodologies must reckon with existing organisation and the varying ways in which working-class actors search for agency. The independence movement is what we have in term of mass mobilisation in “flyover Scotland”. And as an added bonus, for all the baleful effects of the Salmond-Sturgeon split, the Yes camp remains broadly committed to an overall progressive project. To take just one example, few national-popular movements of the past decade have been so open to migration.

Sturgeon and Murrell’s distaste for the independence movement has rarely been hidden. Nonetheless, for all their claims to represent status quo liberalism, they remain dependent on independence and its left-populist promise. This is what allows Sturgeon to glue together a large, catch-all constituency in an era of neoliberal breakdown. They cannot afford to take it off the table, even if all their instincts tell them to do so. Without independence, their legitimacy would have to rest on a paltry domestic record. For this reason, if nothing else, the national question won’t be disappearing in the next parliamentary term. Cynicism aside, that fact opens interesting questions about state power and popular democratic mobilisations.

By contrast, efforts to graft together “progressive federalist” visions always run aground of their total absence of popular legitimacy. Their roots lie in the timid compromises of Labourist bureaucracies and the Fabian dispositions of the professional class. Since they are founded in panicked efforts to stop independence, rather than a positive vision of the Union, they are inevitably full of holes. It makes no sense to transfer more powers to an Edinburgh parliament collapsing under the contradictions of devolution. Indeed, it may actually reinforce the democratic deficit, which is above all a question of social class. Most damningly of all, the methodology of federalism is one of demobilising a largely leftist movement with a technocratic fix, or worse, a payoff. This not only represents a jaundiced way of looking at politics. It is also unlikely to gain popular consent, particularly after the “Vow” debacle, which made voters unusually attuned to bad faith from Scottish Labour leaders.

Equally, for socialists themselves, the ethical case for the breakup of Britain remains solid. As internationalists, there is nothing to mourn in weakening a state that, as an American imperial satellite, has consistently opposed movements for economic democracy worldwide. There are elements of the British state, such as Trident, that cannot be voted away under any conceivable parliamentary arrangement. Even the lifelong pacifist Jeremy Corbyn failed to move Labour away from militarism.

Finally, the most fundamental problem is that democratic working-class agency no longer assumes a British container. Instead, voters (and, it must be added, trade unions) seek to assert power in their various devolved contexts. This remains the essential problem in discourses of “solidarity” that ground themselves in the “unity of the British working class”. A UK-wide idea of popular sovereignty doesn’t exist, hasn’t re-emerged from Brexit, and won’t despite an endless procession of Union Jacks from Keir Starmer. Whether these facts are good or bad, realists must reckon with them.

For all the moralising that attaches to localism, national-popular mobilisations will always be the foundation of genuine challenges for power. In that sense, the meaning-structures and institutions of UK solidarity are worn to shreds. This is less about Brexit than two Longue Durée phenomena of British history, namely post-colonial adaptation and the post-Thatcherite void separating people and state power, which has caused voters to seek meaningful political agency by reverting to the underlying grooves of national consciousness.


Many socialists would consider it enough to rid the world of the British state, a rogue entity that operates within the imperial orbit of the United States and consistently takes the side of global repression. I find that plausible but insufficient. A socialist investment in independence must also have, as its aim, to increase the political autonomy and maturity of the Scottish working class, especially its left-wing. Relations with the independence movement, the SNP, and so on, should be regarded as means to that end. The goal of our participation is not simply to build an audience without purpose, but to engage in solving the national question to improve the terrain for a political battle between left and right as it actually exists within Scotland.

At its best, as with the 2014 campaign, the Scottish independence movement was founded in claims of popular sovereignty. By this term, I mean three things: self-rule; national autonomy; and an aspiration for popular control over state power. This suggests the historical function independence could play, namely, to correct imbalances in state power from the neoliberal era, where elites found ever more elaborate ways to insulate themselves from the organised will of citizens and democratic actors like trade unions.

Many have observed that the last four decades have produced rising inequality, which is what most people imagine by the term “neoliberalism”. But this assessment risks becoming a merely charitable complaint, reinforcing either top-down Labour Fabianism or what Darren McGarvey calls the “poverty industry”. Such well-intentioned schemes risk reinforcing a warped balance of power between the professional-managerial class and the vast, under-represented mass of working-class people. And that’s a problem, because power inequalities are the root of all our symptoms of social injustice.

Contrary to what many believe, Thatcherism, Blairism and related movements were not aiming to cause rising inequality. Not directly, at least. That was an effect of their true purpose, which was to disempower the organised working class, both within British industry and in terms of their influence over the state’s resources. Their negative aim was to break collective solidarities; their positive aim, to produce docile consumer citizens who would never again disrupt the smooth passage of market forces. And if the result was a growing gap between rich and poor, that was a price worth paying for competitiveness.

Globalising institutions such as the European Union have also been complicit in rising inequality. But, as above, their more fundamental effect has been to reinforce the dominance of domestic executives against electorates, legislatures and democratic actors such as trade unions. The era of neoliberal globalisation was one of vast disempowerment, and the smashing of collective political agency, culminating in what Peter Mair calls the “void” separating politics and people. Today’s unequal societies are effects of these conditions.

To reverse this requires asserting popular control over the state. Unfortunately, the institutions of British state power are not amenable to popular sovereignty. The election system systematically disenfranchises working-class voters, producing the “democratic deficit”. Foreign policy institutions and decisions go uncontested by mainstream Westminster parties. Anachronisms like the House of Lords and the Windsors persist without serious debate. The two-party consensus crowds out informed debate on state power, and citizens thus lack the necessary information to judge their institutions. All of this confines popular control over the state and empowers elites.

Devolution likewise functions to repress and control popular sovereignty and political agency. It does this by diffusing political accountability into layers. Polarisation between Edinburgh and London has thus proved an enormously effective mechanism for imposing austerity.

Independence should be based on maximising public control over state power and institutions of political and economic control. Such instincts are present whenever the Yes campaign shows any autonomy from the SNP leadership, as with revolts over NATO or sterlingization. Many have always wondered what type of “independence” hands control of monetary policy to the Bank of England; of fiscal policy to Brussels and Frankfurt; of military policy to the Pentagon; of head of state functions to the Windsors. In practice, socialists have always supported the impulses of popular sovereignty against an SNP leadership intent on handing it away (or “pooling” it). The task today is to embrace honestly in theory what we have long known in practice, and to mould the Yes campaign’s best impulses into a positive vision of a break from neoliberal orthodoxy.


The Yes campaign also needs to address the direction of our failing capitalist economic order. I am sceptical of the Trotskyist idea of simply planting a flag for an abstract transitional programme, which commits many of the same errors as Scottish Labour’s Fabian notions of federalism. Nonetheless, the foundations of the Yes campaign, whether in Alex Salmond’s “positive vision” of replicating the Celtic Tiger, or in Andrew Wilson’s “negative vision” of cutting our way to prosperity, all belong in an earlier era of capitalist ideology. The coronavirus, Brexit and climate change (we may also add the coming depletion of oil) have served to dismantle these assumptions. Yet, beyond buzzwords, little has changed in the practical prospectus.

Talk of “growth”, the centrepiece of both Salmond and Wilson visions, runs up against three emerging problems. Firstly, the growth experienced over the last four decades has largely benefitted the wealthy and powerful. Much of what was experienced as prosperity was a chimera built of credit cards and asset bubbles. Secondly, to the extent that our economies even experienced growth after 2008, barely anyone gets a bump in living standards. Many have seen their incomes falls, and their prospects diminish relative to their parents. Thirdly, even if we can regrow our economies after the pandemic, there are question marks of how and why, given growing awareness of how our economic activity impacts on the planet.

The above has led many to embrace “degrowth” ideologies. We should reject this position, particularly insofar as it conceals sub-Malthusian attitudes to working class people or poorer nations. Indeed, in principle, I favour the idea of modernity as human control over nature, where this serves the function of creating the conditions of freedom and flourishing. However, in a period of capitalist decline, and perhaps obsolescence, efforts to whip the growth machine back into action may be futile and counterproductive. Our visions of the economic future should therefore focus on other areas of control, principally, the types of control imposed on human actors. This is because capitalist development no longer serves to produce growing organisation and ease, but disorganisation and wastefulness.

In the decisive event in British class struggles, the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike, Margaret Thatcher framed her aim as “management’s right to manage”. This again suggests the often-forgotten side of neoliberalism: that it was a system of control exerted over workplaces, deliberately designed to break collective power. Consumer individualism likewise served as a lure to break collective controls over the state: this is why Thatcher’s aims, which Andrew Gamble named as “the free market and the strong state”, were not inconsistent but interrelated.

Since then, across the Western world, we have become increasingly inured to management control over our working lives. Britain retains draconian anti-union laws as a feature of its hard-wired political consensus. The Left has been rather too cautious about seeing this for what it is: a fundamental attack on collective freedoms.

The coronavirus has served to reveal the futility of post-Thatcherite work culture. Many have found that working at home without the customary systems of surveillance has actually increased their productive output. But even if home working persists it imposes new risks, whether in digital surveillance or in the continuing breakdown of collective workplace cultures that form the groundwork for resistance. Equally, the new ranks of the exploited in delivery and logistics have been denied the luxuries of home working even during the peak of lockdown. They are subject to extraordinary modes of digital control, unimaginable in earlier eras, and effectively uncontested in the types of workplaces that rarely see union organisation.

Even just by removing the Thatcherite constraints on unions, independence could begin to open the black box of the workplace, the arena of all the most fundamental attacks on social citizenship. However, that move should be based on popular democratic consent, and must therefore speak to themes of freedom and control. The basic point must be that collective control over the workplace, and public control over politics, are interrelated aims, both of them rooted in aspirations for popular sovereignty.


The struggle for power within the SNP has revealed ungodly problems within the nationalist movement. But it has also served to demonstrate the inherent flaws and limitations of devolution, as a botched halfway house of a sovereign relationship between people and public power.

On the one hand, the Edinburgh Parliament bears many of the expectations of a “real” state. People look to Edinburgh rather than London for national leadership. On the other hand, extremely basic structures of answerable liberal democracy simply do not exist, as the Parliament was not imagined as a serious entity but as a fix to patch up the coalition around New Labour hegemony. It was built for an era of parliamentary arithmetic that no longer exists. With the SNP having released the genie of national competition between parliaments, there will be perennial crises of accountability, regardless of who happens to win elections.

This conclusion is devastating both for Labourist neo-unionism and for the SNP’s shop-soiled vision of independence. Labour has never explained how greater devolved powers – a demand made by nobody except as a panicked response to the SNP – will solve rather than exacerbate issues of accountability and public control. The nationalist leadership, by contrast, remain wedded to the idea that the devolved state has been a triumph under their watch, even though little remains of its reputation for moral cleanliness, and despite their failure to enact a meaningful policy during the whole seven-year period of Sturgeonism.

The Holyrood system has come to pieces under the stresses of what is effectively one-party rule (insofar as, given the fragmented electorate, only one party could conceivably govern). Yet these problems of accountability only hint at the questions posed by independence. Given the Sturgeon-Murrell regime’s habits of blocking scrutiny, it is truly frightening to imagine that Scotland’s existing political structures could serve a real state with everything that implies, from war making powers to secret services. We must therefore start to position independence as a break from devolution and its democratic deficit, not as a continuation of that project.

Equally, we must position the movement, not the party, as the motor of state transformation. In 2014, Yes campaigners often ran up against negative impressions of the SNP and Alex Salmond; but they responded that independence was about public control, not about particular parties and leaders. Subsequently, Sturgeon, with the complicity of many “leftists” and Young Turk professionals, moved towards a presidential model, with seas of foam fingers and “I’m with Nicola” banners, all issuing from a central office controlled by the leader’s husband. However, after the anti-Brexit bubble, this model has demonstrated its limitations. The task is to move from a movement servicing a party servicing a leader, back to the model that prevailed in 2014, where an autonomous social movement disciplined the leadership.

Above all, the Yes movement must fill Scotland’s void in ideological critique. The woeful spectacle of journalists lining up to praise the Leader’s “empathy” was an embarrassment to Scottish institutions. While we could (and should) appreciate the technical effectiveness of rhetoric, the democratic function of intellectuals is to demystify, to reveal the real power stakes behind emotive appeals. For all the hyperbolic talk of a Scottish “failed state”, the bigger problem lies in an all-too credulous civil society, much of it all-too dependent on patronage. Only the Yes movement, with its organising heft in unfashionable Scotland and its instincts for popular control, has the potential to discipline Scotland’s elites to positive goals.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, independence should be about re-imagining inter-nationalism. It’s entirely wrongheaded to imagine that Scots alone have an investment in the breakup of Britain. Elsewhere, across the United Kingdom and beyond, there are reasons to engage with what independence may mean for national-popular projects. The emphasis must be on freedom and self-direction for all nations. If that takes a unionist form, then so be it. But we should end the practice of seeing “solidarity” through the prism of the state, if only because the underlying national communities have ceased to think in those terms.

After May’s election, assuming the SNP achieves some kind of mandate for a referendum, Johnson will likely repress it at all costs. Anyone familiar with Scottish politics knows that this will empower the Scottish state and the SNP leadership at the expense of national-popular aspirations. Leftists in England, Wales and Ireland have an investment here. They too can benefit from the weakening of the UK state as an American imperial satellite and embrace a process of state transformation based in the recovery of their own leftist national traditions, which are often more invigorating than endless regurgitations of the spirit of 45.

But this imposes critical responsibilities on the left elsewhere. Acknowledgement of autonomy means supporting the right to self-determination and ending the practice of pleading with (or moralising at) Scottish voters to save the UK from Tory hegemony. This reinforces the English left’s dependency on a failing Labour Party bureaucracy and begs the question of why English voters cannot be won to a social democratic programme.

Equally, there has been a worrying habit on England’s liberal left of uncritically praising Sturgeon’s devolved administration with the aim of exposing Boris Johnson’s Westminster. Far from being internationalist, this weakens the power of democratic actors in Scotland while giving carte blanche to a centrist leadership that has spent seven years abusing the loyalty of working-class voters. It is all the worse because Sturgeon seems so intent on currying favour with London’s chattering classes; fawning from the London Review of Books or the Guardian serves to empower the Scottish state at its most undemocratic.

Internationalism means acknowledging that our fates are linked. Scottish independence would set off a chain reaction, not just in England, Wales and Ireland, but also in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and in states across Europe. Many counter that discussions of constitutions are a distraction from questions of class. But such ideas are based in multiple levels of naivety. It ignores the real mechanisms of neoliberalism; the real forms of popular resistance emerging after 2008; and the decrepitude of old social democratic parties faced with the crisis of neoliberal globalisation. Democracy and class are interconnected today, as they were for the Chartists and in the foundations of working-class movements across Europe.

Our goal, as socialists, is to increase the combativity and the independent organisation of the working-class, warts and all. This begins by listening to voters in our own national communities, most especially when they take risks to assert their agency against the powers that be. On that foundation, we can build an inter-nationalism founded in meaningful solidarity. At the risk of being brutal, the exchange of pleasantries among leftist sects or cosmopolitan professionals does not matter to most people. Meaning begins when our actions change the political stakes and affects the fates of working people elsewhere. Only when there are strategic investments can inter-nationalism reforge itself as something better than empty gestures and distant bureaucracies.

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